PEG Advocates Make Case on Hill

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Washington— While broadcasters ask cable operators for a chunk of their digital bandwidth, supporters of public, educational and governmental (PEG) channels say they want to make sure they get their fair cut as well.

Last week, the Alliance for Community Media held a rally on the steps of the Capitol building, calling for Congress to enact legislation that would force cable operators to set aside 10 percent of their bandwidth for PEG use.

In addition to PEG channels on cable systems, those at the rally said they want to offer high-speed Internet access services and interactive-television programming to the public.

"It's a matter of us being able to do the exact same kinds of things that the commercial operators have been saying that they're going to do," said Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media. The nonprofit group, which lobbies for the interests of PEG-channel backers, also marked its 25th anniversary at a convention here last week.

About 60 people — many of them on-air hosts, producers or PEG-channel programmers — attended the rally. At times they chanted, "Access for the people will never be defeated," or "What do we want? Bandwidth. When do we want it? Now."

Current U.S. law requires cable operators to set aside up to 5 percent of gross revenues for local franchise fees.

Last year, the Vermont Public Service board ruled that Adelphia Communications Corp. — the state's largest MSO — had to set aside 10 percent of its bandwidth for PEG use as part of a franchise agreement. That's a model ACM wants to see applied nationwide, said Riedel.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association officials said a 10-percent rule wouldn't benefit customers.

"The cable industry has been a long-time supporter of PEG channels and localism," said NCTA spokesman Marc Osgoode Smith. "An arbitrary bandwidth requirement, however, would not serve what our customers are asking for — services such as digital video and high-speed Internet access.

"Our customers, and not arbitrary requirements, should determine how our scarce bandwidth is utilized."

PEG supporters insisted that cable operators would still be able to reap profits, even if they set aside 10 percent of their bandwidth for PEG use.

"We've got the public right of way. We paid for it. We maintain it. If they want to make a billion dollars on it, we want to make a deal," said Anthony Riddle, executive director of Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who hosts a weekly public-access show in Chicago, was the only member of Congress that addressed the PEG rally. In addition to providing communities with a public service, Davis said the channels can have a big impact on the people that produce the shows.

"When I see some of the people that I know behind the camera, it gives them another sense of being. They've reached another level of importance — not so much in terms of status, but in terms of knowing that they've doing something worthwhile," Davis said.

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